My husband lay between life and death for what seemed like an eternity. The doctors had not expected him to live; they had kept me from going with him in the airlift helicopter to Vancouver, because they figured he would die on route. He did not. I was a witch and I had friends who were witches, and friends who were magicians and druids and even friends who simply believed in the power of prayer.
When I went home from the hospital, after the airlift took my husband away, I took our measures from the box in which I’d kept them and I tied them together. If the gods were going to take him, they were going to damn well take me with him. They did not. The Lady had made me a promise, and Her word was good.
But Jason hovered between life and death for a long time; longer than anyone expected. And when they tried to take him off the respirator to breathe on his own, it kept going wrong. His temperature skyrocketed and tachycardia plagued him enough that long-term damage was feared. They thought it was infection, which is actually the number one killer in the ICU. They pumped him full of antibiotics but that didn’t help. “This, too, shall pass,” said my friend; but that was what I was afraid of.
One night, after the second time they’d tried to bring him around out of the medically-induced coma, and failed, I knew it was time to do battle. I am a witch; I exist on the threshold of the veil between the worlds. And I recognized the clutch of the Unseelie from the tales I had been told. I had never done battle with the Unseelie. But I had done battle with hostile ghosts, even demons, and knew of that; and I knew from the tales about what I should do.
I brought my weapons and my tools into the ICU and I closed the curtain. From time to time the nurses looked in on me, and I think they could see what I was up to well enough, but they didn’t disturb me. Which was well. I opened up a MacDonald’s salt packet and sprinkled it around my husband’s bed to cast the circle and create the circle of safety. I poured water from the ice machine into my small brass sherry-cup chalice that I keep for mobile work and blessed it. I placed my miniature pentacle – a coaster – at my husband’s head, and I placed my wand of hollow elder at my husband’s left side. I flicked the switch on the electric tea light I had brought as a candle in this place where open flames were not permitted due to the oxygen stream. I sang to the Gods and chanted to the Quarters, and they came to me as I requested and commanded. And then I brought forth my secret weapon; my athame of cold iron.
Years before a blacksmith friend had offered a workshop on how to forge one’s own athame, and I felt such a calling to do it that I moved heaven and earth to be there. We took an iron bar and heated it in a traditional forge with a hand-pumped bellows. It was a painstaking, exacting process to hammer the bar maybe five, maybe seven strikes at a time before heating it again, and again, and again; first to form the point of the blade, then to form the edges, and last to twist the body of the bar into the hilt. It was beautiful but incredibly painstaking work! And in the end, hammering the blade into sharp cutting edges proved so time-consuming and painstaking that we ground them sharp with an angle grinder. But because of that, it meant that the iron blades were cold-forged, although the rest of it had not been. And that was good enough to meet the conditions.
“Hail Hecate, Lady with the twin torches in hand,” I spoke softly at the invocation. “Guide me through the Underworld safely in my fell business; for I do what must be done.” I felt the Lady’s presence like a warm cloak, and heard Her cackle gloriously in my ear. She was with me then. I was safe here as I stood at the threshold between the worlds, more perilously than I have before or since. But I knew a greater fear, and that was the fear of losing the man I loved. All seemed worth risking then, and it was amazingly easy to risk.
I took out the silver bell I had brought and rang it at my husband’s head well enough to wake the dead. You would think this would have gotten some attention, some objection in the ICU. But it didn’t. Nobody came to stop me. Truly I was in a time that was not a time, and a place that was not a place, halfway between the worlds of gods and mortals.
As I brandished my cold iron blade over my husband’s forehead, I cried, “Hear me, spirits of the North and of Earth! I come to claim my husband from the Underworld! The Lady has promised his return and you can’t have him! I demand you give him back to me, by the power of silver bell and the threat of cold iron! As I will, so mote it be!”
My husband shifted and moved a little; and I knew by this sign that the spirits of the North and of Earth had given up their claim on their prize. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I whispered, and I poured a drop of wine on the floor in gratitude.
When I moved to the East, I drew a line with my athame from one quarter to the next, and once again displayed cold iron. “Hear me, spirits of the East and of Air!” I called. “I come to claim my husband from the Underworld! The Lady has promised his return and you can’t have him! I demand you give him back to me, by the power of silver bell and the threat of cold iron! As I will, so mote it be!”
Jason drew in a long breath and sighed, and I knew by this that the spirits of East and Air had released him. I thanked them thrice also, and gladly made offering.
I drew the circle from the East to the South, and once again displayed cold iron. “Hear me, spirits of the South and of Fire!” I called. “I come to claim my husband from the Underworld! The Lady has promised his return and you can’t have him! I demand you give him back to me, by the power of silver bell and the threat of cold iron! As I will, so mote it be!”
As I watched, the temperature reading on the monitor diminished by one number, then two. Again I thanked the spirits thrice and poured offering.
Feeling hope rise in my throat like bitter acid, I drew the circle from the South to the West, and cried, “Hear me, spirits of the West and of Water! I come to claim my husband from the Underworld! The Lady has promised his return and you can’t have him! I demand you give him back to me, by the power of silver bell and the threat of cold iron! As I will, so mote it be!” And then I completed the circle.
Jason began to cough. And cough hard. It was enough to cause that distressing alarm on the monitors to sound as his blood pressure skyrocketed and his heart rate increased and his blood oxygen levels declined. The alarm sounds like the dinging of an elevator when it reaches a floor; I guess the theory is that if it doesn’t sound like a klaxon, people won’t panic. They’re wrong; and not only are they wrong, but now I have anxiety attacks when I hear that dinging in an elevator.
Of course I panicked. What had I done? I went to call the nurse; but just as I did so, Jason hawked up a huge green and bloody splat of something, and his breathing and blood pressure eased. That’s when the nurse stuck her head in. Instinctively she drew up at the circle. “Is everything all right in here?” she asked.
“It seems to be now,” I said. My athame was under the shelf by Jason’s head, where the nurse wouldn’t see. The other tools she didn’t seem to notice. Or perhaps she was pointedly not seeing them.
“Do you mind if I check?” she inquired curiously; which was interesting, because the nurses generally barged in and out of the room without so much as a fare-thee-well to do their work; the lifesaving work of tending the machines and the medicines that kept my husband clinging to this world when his hold was so fragile.
“Not at all,” I said (why would I stop them from trying to save my husband’s life?) and now with permission to enter the circle she came to do her work.
“Hmm,” she muttered thoughtfully. “There was a drop in his oxygen. Did the sensor come off of his finger?”
“He coughed up something,” I replied.
“Looks like it helped,” she smiled. Then she checked the other tubes and instruments and observed, “Seems like his temperature dropped a little. And his heart rate. That’s a good sign.” I smiled back at her hopefully, and she left again to continue her rounds.
As soon as she was gone I made the last offering and swore my gratitude. I drank what was left of the wine, except that I touched a drop to my husband’s lips. “May you never thirst,” I whispered. I left offering for Hecate also; then I spread around some rice crackers, ate a piece myself, and placed a crumb on my husband’s lips. “May you never hunger,” I said. And with that, I opened the circle, my heart greatly eased.
That night, an intern spent five hours of his own time peering over my husband’s X-rays. He found a tiny spot; a mere shadow. He pointed it out to the doctor in charge, who dismissed it. The intern asked him to sign a paper saying that he refused to look into it so that if I decided to pursue legal charges when my husband died, he would be taking full responsibility.
The doctor X-rayed the area that corresponded to the mark, and it turned out to be a pulmonary embolism. A blood clot. Just a really tiny one. They added Warfarin to my husband’s medications. A day later he was breathing better. Two days later his temperature dropped some more. Three days later the tachycardia eased a little. They decided to take him off the respirator. He struggled through the night – he’d had sleep apnea for some time – but in the morning, he was conscious, and he was off the machine.
My husband had returned from the threshold between the worlds.
(To be continued . . .)